|When faces were hidden or schematic, 9-month-olds preferred looking at the "unattractive" male bodies|
Michelle Delaney at the University of Sheffield and her colleagues presented dozens of babies with pictures of pairs of Caucasian male bodies wearing only underwear: one was always "unattractive" with a fuller waist and smaller chest; the other was always more muscular, with a V-shaped torso, a larger chest and narrower waist. "The men with attractive bodies were models, and the men with unattractive bodies were friends of the experimenters," the researchers explained. It wasn't stated whether these volunteers remained friends with the researchers after reading the descriptions used in the study.
Videos were taken of the babies' eye gaze, and after they'd spent a total of ten seconds looking at one pair of pictures, a new pair was shown. The key test was whether the babies would choose to spend more time looking at the V-shaped "mesomorphic" male bodies (rated earlier as more attractive by hundreds of adult male and female participants) or at the less attractive, normal-shaped male bodies.
Nine-month-olds showed a clear preference for looking at the unattractive, normal male bodies, but only in versions of the experiment where the men's faces were obscured. If the faces were shown, no body preference was found. This might simply be because of babies' well-known attraction to faces, which may have distracted them from the bodies.
Babies aged 3.5 months and 6 months showed no preference for one male body type or the other. A habituation test (based around the idea of babies finding a new type of image interesting to look at) showed that 3.5-month-olds couldn't tell the difference between the two body types. Six-month-olds could, but they didn't show a preference.
Why should nine-month-olds prefer looking at cuddlier-shaped men? Delaney and her colleagues think the preference probably arises from what babies are used to encountering in their daily lives - after all, they said, a recent NHS survey in England found that "66 per cent of men were overweight or obese". A related explanation is that the babies prefer female-looking bodies (perhaps because they see their mother more often), and male bodies with more fat have a closer resemblance to a female body.
The emergence of the babies' preference for a particular male body type between 6 and 9 months complements past research suggesting that it is around the age of 9 months that babies typically begin to show a sophisticated recognition of the human form - for example, they are sensitive to the normal proportions of the arms, legs and neck.
"The current study suggests that during infancy, preferences for particular human body shapes reflect level of exposure and resultant familiarity rather than culturally defined stereotypes of attractiveness," the researchers said. "Precisely when and how children develop preferences for adult-defined attractive bodies remains a question for future research." They added that it would be interesting to repeat the research to see if nine-month-olds' preferences vary with the differing average body sizes across cultures - for example in Japan versus Samoa.
Heron-Delaney, M., Quinn, P., Lee, K., Slater, A., & Pascalis, O. (2013). Nine-month-old infants prefer unattractive bodies over attractive bodies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115 (1), 30-41 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2012.12.008
Image reproduced with the permission of the first author.
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